Streetcar graphic courtesy of VIA.
Streetcar graphic by Jason Rodriguez / courtesy VIA.

Move SA Forward, a new public interest coalition of San Antonio organizations and businesses, with members ranging from former AT&T and General Motors CEO Ed Whitacre to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, is launching this month in an effort to counter anti-streetcar forces and to support VIA Smart Move transportation projects in San Antonio.

The group plans an official launch and press conference on Tuesday, 11 a.m., July 29 at the Pearl. Move SA Forward’s emergence in the debate over VIA Metropolitan Transit’s Modern Streetcar project comes at key point for anti-streetcar forces working to stop the project, even though it has won local government approval, substantial state funding, and is now in the planning and engineering phase.

Phasing map for the Modern Streetcar project. Courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit.
Phasing map for the Modern Streetcar project. Courtesy of VIA Metropolitan Transit. Click image to enlarge.

Last week, the Streetcar Vote Coalition delivered 26,000 signatures to the City Clerk in an effort to force a public vote on the project on Nov. 4. Attorneys for the City and VIA say such a vote is not required by law and the outcome would not be binding. The City Clerk’s office is in the process of reviewing signatures and petitions to see if they comply with residency and endorsement requirements. The anti-streetcar signatures would have to be certified by Aug. 18 to make the November ballot.

For streetcar supporters, Move SA Forward cannot come too soon, with supporters saying VIA has not done enough to educate the community on the project’s many transportation and economic development benefits, while a very vocal minority of largely suburban dwellers have garnered considerable media attention to their efforts to stop the project.

Comments that readers have posted on the Rivard Report in recent months suggest there is a large group of individuals who support transportation alternatives, but have doubts about streetcars being the right project for the city.

A commonly expressed fear is that a poorly executed project will set back mass transit in the city for another decade or more, as occurred in 2000 when voters rejected a 1/4 cent transportation sales tax that would have been levied for 25 years and financed a 53.5 mile long light rail system.

In order to build broad community support and overcome opposition, Move SA Forward will have to rally doubters and downtown advocates on the sideline and convince them the streetcar project is going to deliver on its promise.

One thing the advocacy group could do is educate the public on how many hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on suburban area highway projects in recent years, yet without public transportation options to reduce worsening vehicle congestion, experts says hundreds of millions of dollars more will be needed to keep up with growth and sprawl in the coming decade. Critics of such highway spending say it won’t alleviate the congestion, but only encourage more sprawl.

Outgoing Mayor Julián Castro pointed out in his Centro San Antonio speech last week that the city and VIA spend more transportation dollars each year on suburban expressways, bridges, overpasses, and connecting ramps, all to alleviate worsening sprawl and vehicle congestion. That spending has met with no organized opposition, either in the suburbs or among center city interests. Yet the streetcar project has become a favorite target of suburban City Council representatives and other elected officials as well as the firefighters union, which opposed the project while battling to win a new collective bargaining contract.

“The streetcar project is an important part of revitalizing the urban core of our city,” Castro said in his Centro speech. “It will be an excellent people mover and a catalyst for future economic investment in our city. I have always tried to work as mayor in the spirit of thinking through what’s good for our entire city and not just one part of town. I would caution this community (about)…folks who would pit one side of town or one community against another side of town, those who might scapegoat downtown…the fact is investment downtown or other places is good for the entire city. The fact is significant investments are being made in our entire city.

Julián Castro addresses a packed ballroom during Centro San Antonio's "The Future of Downtown" luncheon. July 10, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Outgoing Mayor Julián Castro addresses a packed ballroom during Centro San Antonio’s “The Future of Downtown” luncheon. July 10, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“Far out in our city, beyond 281 and 1604, (the city) continues to get developed, where, over the last decade we have spent the most amount of transportation and infrastructure money,” Castro said. “The future of this city’s prosperity lies not in pitting neighborhoods against each other or singling out downtown as a place we don’t want to invest, but in understanding that all of us will rise together if we tend to all of the city’s needs, including downtown.”

Move SA Forward’s organizers said the group’s new website, Facebook page and Twitter messages will demonstrate its broad, still-growing support in the business, civic and cultural community, much of that from entities outside the center city and the path of the streetcar lines.

San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ramiro Cavazos
San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Ramiro Cavazos

“We’re a small business chamber with members from every corner of the city, but we’ve always been downtown and we’ve been at the Pearl for four years, so the central business district is home for us, and our board is in favor of this because we know a modern city needs a modern transportation system,” said Ramiro Cavazos, president and CEO of the Hispanic Chamber. “The streetcar will grow business in the central business district. It will move 1.1. million people a year, and not just visitors, but many working people and young professionals who want to get out of cars. Every streetcar takes the places of three buses, and we expect to reduce the number of buses downtown by 60 percent, so relieving downtown congestion and air pollution is another benefit.”

The Hispanic Chamber commissioned an economic impact study on the effects of a streetcar system in San Antonio, which concluded that it would be a multi-billion dollar economic catalyst over the next 25 years.

(Read more: Sabér Study: Streetcar System Will Generate Billions).

“From an economic development viewpoint, the impact will be $1.3 billion. We’ve already seen two new $40 million residential projects announced along the streetcar lines by outside developers that will add 400 new apartments toward our SA2020 goal of 7,500 new downtown residences. Finally, increasing the tax base will elevate the San Antonio Independent School District. and other tax-supported entities,” Cavazos said.

Phase One of the street car system also would transform Broadway into a complete street that would make it far more inviting and safer for pedestrians, cyclists, and streetcar riders, a key to attracting and keeping young professionals living and working in the city, many of whom view the automobile as the transportation option of last resort. A growing number of young people do not even own a car, and would rather rely on carshare, rideshare, modern public transportation, and cycling.

A preliminary sketch of a redesign for Broadway Street as presented to VIA by the City of San Antonio.
A preliminary sketch of a redesign for Broadway Street as presented to VIA by the City of San Antonio.

“San Antonio is growing, transportation preferences are changing, and downtown is experiencing a much needed renaissance,” said Rachel Holland, a downtown worker, young professional, and Move SA Forward member. “To reduce vehicular traffic, become a more walkable city, and offset carbon emissions, we must invest in alternative transportation initiatives. Sure, not everyone is going to use the streetcar during the initial phase, but it is part of a larger transportation network (and a required first step) that will connect neighborhoods all over the city – and eventually the state.

Rachel Holland, HPARC executive assistant
Rachel Holland, Move SA Forward member.

“The streetcar is also part of a larger movement to prepare for the future, embrace innovation, and appeal to a new generation of San Antonians,” she said. “I am tired of losing my peers to walkable cities like San Francisco and Portland. The streetcar alone won’t bring them back, but investing in alternative transportation is one of several tools that will make San Antonio more attractive to young, educated professionals and the corporate headquarters that hire them. Basically, if you want your adult children to return to San Antonio, the streetcar is an investment that you should be supporting.”

Stop a young professional anywhere in the city and you’ll get a similar perspective. Many can’t fathom why opponents complacently support continued expansion of highways that attract individual vehicle congestion, worsen commuting times and contribute to the city’s deteriorating air quality at the same time they appear threatened by the prospect of mass transit options.

Former AT&T and General Motors CEO Ed Whitacre
Former AT&T and General Motors CEO Ed Whitacre

They aren’t alone. A growing number of business leaders, many of them politically conservative, recognize that cities that have resisted transportation alternatives must embrace them now or risk the loss of talented people seeking a more appealing lifestyle and a community that places a greater value on long-term environmental protections and sustainability policies.

“Great American cities invest in themselves for the long term,” said Whitacre, one of the nation’s most respected business leaders over the last 25 years, in expressing support for Move SA Forward. “We must continue to support decisions that will elevate us to a Great American City.”

Marise McDermott, president and CEO of the Witte Museum, agreed.

“The streetcar system running through downtown and to outer area restaurants, museums and homes will complement and further drive the massive revitalization currently taking place in Southtown, on the East and West sides, up Broadway and beyond,” she said.

Move SA Forward organizers have created an online, informational quiz about the various impacts of the Modern Streetcar project. Click here or on the screenshot of the quiz below to visit www.movesaforward.com/quiz.

(Full disclosure: The Rivard Report supports the VIA Smart Move strategic plan, including streetcars, and other progressive transportation alternatives, including enhanced pedestrian walkways and protected bike lanes. We welcome submissions from responsible persons who wish to voice alternative viewpoints in the interest of promoting public dialogue.)

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.